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How I Aced the CBAP Exam on My First Attempt: A Personal Journey

By Retha De La Porte
Published in Opinion pieces
January 29, 2024
15 min read
How I Aced the CBAP Exam on My First Attempt: A Personal Journey

“Dreams are powerful reflections of your actual growth potential.” - Denis Waitley

Introduction

Ever since I accidently discovered the Business Analysis profession I dreamt of the day when I would be able to put the acronym ‘CBAP’ behind my name. In 2022, when the opportunity to grab this dream presented itself, I impulsively grabbed it - with both hands.

The decision proved to be a test of grit and resilience. Yes, it was a gruesome as it sounds. There were days when I tumbled down the rabbit hole, questioning my sanity, my choices, and the extremely caffeine-fueled lifestyle I was leading but deep down, I knew that I had the strength to persevere.

The sacrifices I made along the way ultimately paid off when I passed the CBAP exam on my first try (well technically, my second try, but we’ll get to that a bit later) with above-average scores. It felt like the perfect reward for all my hard work. So, join me as I share my journey and reveal the strategies that helped me conquer the CBAP exam.

Meeting the Prerequisites:

Before you can even think about sitting for the CBAP exam, there are a handful of prerequisites that need to be met.

Work Experience

You need to have racked up a minimum of 7,500 hours of Business Analysis Work experience over the last 10 years. This doesn’t mean all the time you spent at work over the last couple of years as a business analyst in some way, shape or form. It’s the actual hours spent on doing business analysis tasks, like facilitating a requirements gathering workshop or time spent on designing a process model or wireframe. Coffee breaks, vacations, maternity leave - better subtract that from your total experience (although I believe drinking coffee should be considered an official business analysis task!)

From personal experience, I suggest that you keep track of your hours as soon as possible after you start working as a business analyst. I used a simple MS Excel spreadsheet to track my hours, first by project and then summarizing it by employer as this is the format you will need to enter it when you apply for the exam.

Area-Specific Experience

Beyond the generalized work experience, candidates must demonstrate a more specialized skill set. This necessitates at least 900 hours completed in 4 of the 6 BABOK® Guide Knowledge Areas, which adds up to a total of at least 3,600 hours of the required 7,500 total.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the BABOK® Guide Knowledge Areas, I’ve listed them here:

  • Business Analysis Planning & Monitoring
  • Elicitation & Collaboration
  • Requirements Life Cycle Management
  • Strategy Analysis
  • Requirements Analysis & Design Definition
  • Solution Evaluation

Professional Development

The thirst for learning doesn’t stop at this juncture. A minimum of 35 hours of professional development in the last fours years is a must. To gain these Professional Development Units (PDU’s) you have the choice to attend any of the below options from an IIBA Endorsed Education Provider (EEP) or a registered IIBA chapter. If you choose to attend chapter events, it is important to note that the content presented in the chapter sessions must align with the BABOK® Guide v3.0, be formal in structure and not simply a presentation on a topic in order to qualify for the PDU’s.

1 hour of attendance = 1 PDU

  • Classroom Course (courses, seminars, workshops)
  • Chapter Event (meetings, events)
  • Chapter Study Group Conference Workshop (key notes, tracks, workshops)
  • Online Course (courses, live webinars)

To gain my PDU’s I attended a CBAP exam preparation course - but don’t think you will be ready to take the exam once you have done the course!

The Application Process:

If you have properly tracked your area specific work experience, the application process is a breeze. If not, then put away 10+ hours so that you can finalize it and make sure that you meet the minimum requirements.

The main reason for this is that you can only upload your work history to ensure you meet the minimum requirements after you paid the application fee. The application fee is non-refundable and non-transferrable, so if you don’t meet the minimum requirements your only other option is to gain the required experience before you will be able to summit your application.

Other than there is not too much to the application process other than providing two contactable references that can vouch for your work experience (in case your application is selected for auditing), accepting all the T’s & C’s and hitting submit.

Registering for the exam:

Once your application has been approved, you have period of one year in which you need to schedule and take your exam. In this year, you have three attempts (at a fee) to write the exam.

So how do you decide when to write the exam? Here is where you need to get a piece of paper, pen and your calendar ready.

Have you ever heard about the Parkinson’s law of learning?

Parkinson’s Law is the famous adage that work expands to fill the allotted time we set aside for its completion. Or in other words, if you give yourself 3 months to study, it will take you three months to master the content, if you give yourself 6,8 or 10 months, well that is how long it going take you to get to the same point.

Consider your learning pace:

If you are a fast learner, aim for 100 - 120 hours of studying. If you need more time to process content extend that to 150 - 170 hours, but cap at at a maximum of 200 hours.

Break it down:

Now divide those hours into manageable time blocks for studying. Aim for 2 - 4 hours at a time. I wouldn’t suggest going for longer than 4 hours at a time to give yourself time to process the information. Also consider your lifestyle and see how you can fit it into your schedule. Be realistic!

Example:

I work a full time job and have a family at home with a small kid, so I could only study after hours and only once the little one was fast asleep.

I decided on 120 hours, breaking it down into two hour periods, three times during the week, and then four hours for each day over the weekend, totaling to roughly 14 hours a week.

120 hours divided by 14 hours per week calculates to just over 8.5 weeks of studying. Taking into consideration that life happens sometimes, I decided to give myself 12 weeks to prepare and write the exam.

Now that you know you much time you would need to prepare, you can go back and pay and schedule your exam.(They do allow you to reschedule your exam, but try to stick to your planned date, unless there is a real emergency)

What you need to know:

This is where the fun starts! The BABOK® Guide v3.0 with its 500 pages can be massively intimidating and overwhelming, especially when you don’t know where to start. It’s not the type of book you can just read from start to finish. I learnt that the HARD way.

In true business analysis style, let’s look at the lessons learned:

  • Get a good understanding of the basics. I’d suggest starting with chapter 1 and 2. Even though they are not strictly a part of the six knowledge areas being tested in the exam, they provide a foundation for when you study the different knowledge areas.

  • Get a good grip on the Underlying Competencies discussed in chapter 9. Again it is not a specific knowledge area being tested but the content is interweaved right through all the knowledge areas.

  • The BABOK® Guide v3.0 is not written in a chronological order, just as business analysis is not performed in a sequential order but rather iteratively across all the different knowledge areas. If you are looking for some type of structure or order to resemble real life I’d suggest going through the chapters in the following order. Start with chapter 3, then move on to chapter 6 and 8, then chapter 4, 7 and lastly chapter 5.

  • You need to know each of the Knowledge Areas really well and by really well I mean if someone wakes up in the middle of the night, you should be able to answer this without a second thought. This includes:

    • Knowing the input(s) required for each business analysis task, the output(s) of every task and other tasks using the output(s), as well as the guidelines and tools used in every task. Important to note is that sometimes an output becomes a guideline for another task rather than an input.
    • All the different elements needed to perform a specific business analysis task.
    • The various techniques that can be used to perform the given task.
    • The stakeholders involved in executing the specific task.
  • Last but not least, Techniques. Chapter 10 lists 50 of the most common techniques used in business analysis. You need to a good understanding of each technique, how to apply the technique and most importantly in which tasks you would use the technique. Very important - know your financial calculations! You will get an on-screen calculator on the examination platform or you can go the old-fashioned way and use pen and paper.

My Study Plan:

I iterated though a couple of approaches when I started studying, ranging from just reading through the book and highlighting key points to trying the old fashioned way of summarizing the key points of every chapter. Halfway through the book, with papers strewn all over the living room and the dustbin filled with empty pens, and the sink with empty coffee cups, I gave up. It felt like I wasn’t making any progress with these methods.

Thinking about the words of management guru Peter Drucker that boils down to the fact that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, I tried a different tactic - something that I initially only considered to do ‘once I have mastered all the content’

Signing up for Watermark Learning’s Online Study Exam was one of the best choices I made - even if it was at a premium. With only 8 weeks left, I opted for their 60-day subscription plan.

Why I liked the Watermark Exam Simulator:

  • The quality of the questions were spot on, maybe even more detailed than the actual exam questions. (Downside to this - it made me realize how little I actually knew by then)
  • You can do practice test of 25,50 or 100 questions - really great if you want to squeeze some learning in during lunch time!
  • They have drills on specific knowledge areas, which I found pretty handy with the new approach I was taking (more on this below) as well as complete mock exams covering all the knowledge areas.
  • The best part - I could measure my progress! It has this neat little table that you can filter that keeps all your scores for each of the test you take enabling you to measure your progress and highlighting the areas where more work is needed.

My new approach entailed doing a complete mock exam to benchmark where I was 4 weeks into my journey.

I failed, miserably. I cried. UGLY cried. I grabbed a box of tissues, allow myself a couple of minutes to wallow in despair and then put my big girl pants on and pressed forward.

I started with the knowledge area where I had the lowest score. Reading through the chapter diligently, paying special attention to the areas that I know I was questioned on during the mock exam.

This helped me to summarize each knowledge area in a more meaningful way than during my first attempt.

I noted down the following details on each task:

  • Task name with a short summary of the purpose and description
  • The input(s) required to execute the task
  • All the elements that made up the task
  • Guidelines and tools that can be used during the execution of the task
  • The techniques used to execute the task
  • The output(s) delivered by executing the task
  • The stakeholders involved in the execution of the task

Once I felt that I had a sufficient understanding of the content, I attempted the drill mock exam for the specific knowledge area. Going back and forth between my notes and the drills until I scored and average of 70%+ for the knowledge area.

Repeating this process over the next 4 weeks, I worked my way through all 6 knowledge areas, one by one.

When it came to the Techniques, I followed a similar structure, by noting down the following details about each technique listed:

  • Short summary highlighting the purpose and key points in the description
  • Elements
  • Strengths
  • Limitations

Something that I found quite useful was to map the techniques back to the tasks where these techniques were used.

With only 4 weeks left before sitting for the exam, feeling confident that I now had finally conquered the mountain, I lightheartedly attempted the 3.5 hour mock exam…just to see my averages drop back to the 50’s and 60’s.

I was able to steadily work my way back up to the 70’s and finally the 80’s over the course of the next 3 weeks by paying closer attention to:

  • the negative cases - e.g., which stakeholder(s) will NOT be included or what technique you will NOT be considered when you execute a specific task.
  • Correctly identifying the knowledge area that the case study is referring to. The case studies are overloaded with information which is meant to confuse you.
  • Memorizing the input/ output diagrams of the various tasks, noting when an input becomes a guideline or a tool with other tasks.
  • Paying meticulous attention the the wording in both the question and the multiple choice answers given. You don’t want to get caught on a task name or technique that doesn’t exist.
  • The most important thing - do NOT rely on experience when answering questions! i.e., You currently include the the implementation SME in sessions when you assess solution limitations but the BABOK® Guide v3.0 does not list the implementation SME as a stakeholder for the ‘Assess Solution Limitation’ task. Should you select the implementation SME as your answer if presented with the question you answer will be marked as incorrect.

The last week before the exam was scheduled, I just spent on revision. This is where the summaries mentioned above really came in handy. By this time I worked through roughly a thousand questions on Watermark and my averages were consistently around the 80’s.

Sitting for the Exam:

The night before

As there are no examination centers in South Africa, I had to opt for the online examination. The night before the exam was spent preparing the area where I would take the exam. There are quite a few things to note when you choose this option:

  • You have to take the exam in a private room with no distractions. If the room has doors or windows, the moderator will ask you to close the door and curtains. No one else is allowed in the room with you either.
  • The surroundings should be clean, wall ornaments, especially with writing should be covered or removed. Same for other decor items.
  • You are only allowed 2 pieces of white printing paper and one pen or pencil on your desk.
  • All electronics should be out of sight. No tablets, cellphones or even smart watches are allowed when you take your exam.
  • On that note, no jewellery is allowed either, that includes rings and earrings.
  • Make sure you have a personal desktop or laptop to take the exam and you have admin rights to switch off background services. Corporate firewalls and VPN’s may restrict user access.
  • If you are using a desktop, make sure you have a camera that can autofocus. You need to identify yourself before taking the exam and if they cannot read your details from your ID card they will not allow you to take the exam. (Yup, learnt from personal experience)
  • Make sure you camera is angled in such a way that you stay in the frame the whole time while writing the exam and if you tend to mouth words while reading try getting rid of that habit as soon as possible because they will call you out on it and ask you to stop.
  • Lastly. you will need a steady internet line supporting VoIP in order to complete the exam.
  • If you are a South African, take note of your loadshedding schedule to ensure you have electricity during the duration of your exam.

The day of the exam:

Take 1

When the day of reckoning had finally arrived, I got up early to squeeze in the last hour of revision while enjoying my morning coffee and a rusk. My anxiety was too high to even think about having anything more than that.

A half an hour before my exam was scheduled to start, I logged in on the platform and waited a couple of minutes to connect with a moderator to start the verification process. All went well up to this point, but unfortunately the camera I had didn’t have autofocus and not matter how hard I tried, the moderator couldn’t clearly see my details to verify my identity. Despite struggling for more than an hour and seeking support from their IT team, I found myself at an impasse. Overwhelmed with a sense of panic, I had to concede that technology had gotten the better of me, and with a heavy heart, I had to throw in the towel. With a reference number in hand, I rescheduled for a couple of days later, whilst scouring the internet to find a camera with autofocus.

Take 2

Armed with my new camera and a couple of extra days of revision I was ready for the second try. This time around the verification process was successful and relatively painless. The killer this time around - I had to go through the verification process a couple of times as the system inexplicably dropped my session right after I started and I had to sign in and restart the process before I could continue with the exam, eating away precious time as the clock doesn’t stop. Unfortunately, this happened a couple of time during the exam even with a steady line. (Note - do not use a password keeper where you would need your phone to log into the IIBA’s website!)

Exam Experience:

Exam Blueprint

The exam consisted out of 120 multiple choice questions, some case study-based and the rest based on scenarios, spread across the various knowledge areas with the following weighting:

Knowledge AreaWeight
Business analysis planning and monitoring14%
Elicitation and collaboration12%
Requirements life cycle management15%
Strategy analysis15%
Requirements analysis and design definition30%
Solution evaluation14%

Time Keeping

It’s really important to keep an eye on the clock as the case studies are quite lengthy and you only have 3.5 hours to complete the exam. It sounds like you have a lot of time but like they say, time flies when you are having fun!

Exam Format

From my research and webinars I joined in preparation for the CBAP course I was warned about the difficulty of the case study questions. They are difficult by design and hit you right at the start of the exam attempting to throw you, testing your ability to maintain calm in high pressure scenarios. I was prepared to face them head-on, but if you do get thrown quickly, I suggest you follow the advise I have been given and skip over them to the scenario based questions and then come back to them.

Case Study Questions

I found that reading through the questions before reading the case study helped with identifying the info I required to answer the questions saving a myself a valuable few seconds here and there.

Scenario Based Questions

To me, the scenario based questions felt fairly easy compared to the Watermark questions. There were a couple of headscratchers where I had to think twice before I could answer, others were really straight-forward questions but most of them where somewhere in the middle.

I managed to get to the flagged questions with just a little more than 5 minutes left on the clock. Not ideal, but also not bad considering all the time lost having to repeat the verification process multiple times.

Getting My Results:

It felt like hours passed in the few seconds it took for my results to appear on the screen. My heart was racing and I felt lightheaded (most probably from holding my breath a few seconds longer than I should have). The results could have gone either way, I really couldn’t tell from writing the exam - and after the rude awakening I got after confidently taking the mock exam, I couldn’t trust my gut either.

Then a tiny congratulatory message appeared on the screen. I passed! Relief washed through me, knowing that the hard work I put in over the last couple of months paid off.

The affirming e-mail with my results and certificate from the IIBA popped into my mailbox soon there after confirming that I had passed 5 of the 6 knowledge areas with higher than average scores. With reality finally hitting a burst out in tears (yes, I am a happy crier).

Conclusion:

In conclusion, acing the CBAP exam on the first attempt was a challenging, yet rewarding experience, not just during the the preparation but also once I got certified.

I didn’t get an increase in salary for getting certified and I believe this is the reality for most working professionals. What I did gain from this whole experience is:

Knowledge. By actively studying the BABOK® Guide v3.0 - even after many years of practicing as a business analyst there was still a lot that I had to learn. I had many ‘aha’ moments when I realized I have been doing certain tasks or practicing recognized techniques unknowingly. I learned how to do it better. I found other tasks and techniques that I would have never considered as I have never been exposed to them in any of the environments I have worked in. It created a hunger in me to know more, learn more, be more.

Confidence. This was a big game changer for me. A natural personality trait of mine is not speak up if I am not certain of my facts. Having the knowledge that I had now gave me the confidence to speak up in meetings, in front of my peers even with the higher-ups.

Inspiration. To share my knowledge with others, to share my passion and excitement about the profession and the possibilities out there.

New Opportunities. It opened new doors in my career. I was considered for positions that I was not considered for previously. Peers started looking at me to mentor them and guide them.

I hope that by sharing my journey with you here, through the valleys of despair and the mountains of small successes, rivers of coffee and tears to the summit of the CBAP, that it will inspire you and prepare you for your journey when the time comes.


Tags

Professional CertificationsCBAPBABOK Guide V3.0IIBA Certifications

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Previous Article
Top 5 Skills Every Business Analyst Needs in 2024 (and Courses to Develop Them)
Retha De La Porte

Retha De La Porte

Business Analyst

Table Of Contents

1
Introduction
2
Meeting the Prerequisites:
3
The Application Process:
4
Registering for the exam:
5
My Study Plan:
6
Sitting for the Exam:
7
Exam Experience:
8
Getting My Results:
9
Conclusion:

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